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Backgrounds of Sarai's Barrenness
The first obstacle to the covenant faced in Genesis is Sarah’s barrenness. If one of the benefits of the covenant was for Abraham to become a great nation, he would have to start by having children. The blessing in Genesis 1 indicated that people would be capable of having children. The covenant promise provided a guarantee for Abraham that the blessing would be reality. As we see in the excerpt below, Sarah’s barrenness is not only an obstacle to this covenant promise, it would also have been considered God’s judgment, in contrast to his blessing.
Barrenness was considered a judgment from God in the ancient world. Ancient peoples did not yet understand the physiology associated with fertilization. They viewed the woman as a receptacle for male seed. Rather than supplying an egg to be fertilized, the woman was seen simply as an incubator for the child. Therefore, if man provided the seed at the proper time (they understood that timing was in relation to menstruation) and nothing came of it, the woman was seen to be a faulty incubator. But this defect would not be seen as simply a physical problem, since no illness, symptom, or condition was simply physical. Deity was responsible for creation in the womb, and deity was the one who opened the womb. Note an Akkadian Prayer to the moon god, Sin:
Without you scattered people are not brought together.
Where you command so the scorned one gives birth to children. …
Whoever has no son you give him an heir.
Without you the childless one can receive neither seed nor impregnation.1
Nevertheless, ancient medical texts indicate various remedies for infertility (charms, recitations, and medications),2 though ritual solutions were foremost. Note the following prayer to Ishtar:
I have strewn for you a mixture of [pure] aromatic herbs and [fra]grant incense.
Eat what is good, drink what is [sweet]!
May your heart calm down, your mind [relax].
I am So-and-so, descendant of so-and-so.
Something dreadful has befallen me. …
You are the judge, procure me justice!
You bring order, inform me of a ruling!
May my god who is endangered with me turn back to me.
May my transgression be forgiven and my guilt be remitted.
May the disease be snatched out of my body
And the sluggishness be expelled from my blood!
May the worries disappear from my heart.
Give me a name and a descendant!
May my womb be fruitful.3
Sarai’s barrenness would have potentially resulted in a fragile marriage (since failure to deliver children to the family was the most common cause of divorce), in shame in society (since her condition was seemingly the result of having angered a god and she was therefore unable to fulfill her societal role), and in an uncertainty for the afterlife (since descendants were believed to sustain the deceased in the netherworld). (Excerpt from ZIBBCOT, Genesis, by John H.Walton, Forthcoming)
Though the common belief was that the womb was always opened or closed by deity, the circumstances of Sarah giving birth at her advanced age made it very clear that hers would be a child provided by God.
1 Cited in K. van der Toorn, From Her Cradle to Her Grave (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1994), 78.
2 J. Scurlock and B. Andersen, Diagnoses in Assyrian and Babylonian Medicine (Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 2005), 260–61. Of course they were familiar with many genitourinary problems that males could have, but the absence of any such symptoms would generally suggest that the problem was with the woman.
3 Cited in van der Toorn, From Her Cradle to Her Grave, 79–80.
Bible Backgrounds is a series of weekly blog posts leading up to the fall 2009 release of the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Old Testament. Each post is written by John H. Walton, the general editor for the five volumes. ZIBBCOT is the product of thirty international specialists; their work and expertise will also be represented throughout this series.
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